[November 28, 2018] Many years ago I was writing one of my first evaluations of a junior officer. Before I started, my boss gave me some advice; “Don’t use words that are overtly critical. Use ‘bland’ language. We will know what it means.” In other words, in the military we use coded language that says one thing but means something different to those in the know.
What is coded language? Coded language is a method of communicating a specific message that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted group.1 Yes, leaders do use it. For example, we find it today many references to racist coded language. See this article as a good example: 8 Sneaky Racial Code Words and Why Politicians Love Them.
What was my boss doing when he gave me the advice? In the U.S. military, there is a tendency for officers to ‘challenge’ any wording that points out poor performance. This can be done in a variety of ways; the strongest is a formal protest to an Inspector General (IG).
To avoid this problem I was advised to write things like, “Lieutenant John Doe is a good officer.” This immediately does two things. First, it removes any possibility of a complaint since nothing bad was written. Second, it communicates to those senior officers that this is, in fact, not a good officer. Problem solved!
In her 2006 book, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, academic Amanda Lohrey writes that the goal of coded language is to appeal to the greatest possible number of electors while alienating the smallest possible number. She uses as an example Australian politicians using broadly appealing words such as “family” and “values”, which have extra resonance for Christians, while avoiding overt Christian moralizing that might be a turn-off for non-Christian voters.2
We all do it. Using coded language is not limited to leaders or in-the-know groups; everyone uses code words to communicate messages that mislead. This is done for a variety of reasons; usually to keep ourselves out of trouble (like being called a racist) or simply to avoid complaints (like time-consuming IG investigations).
Is it acceptable to use coded language? Yes, but only if you lack the moral courage to tell the truth and you are unwilling to be subjected to a whole lot of trouble. Remember that leaders must be precise in what they say and write. Using coded language is not a good idea because, at its most basic level, it is intended to mislead and deceive.
- Taken from Wikipedia under Dog-whistle politics. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog-whistle_politics
- Lohrey, Amanda (2006). Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia. Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc. pp. 48–58.